Graduate school opens doors. For me, it led to medical school. I am currently starting my third year at Case Western Reserve University, a private medical school in Cleveland, Ohio. I am happy to be a part of a great medical community and learning from some of the best professors in medicine. Getting here was an emotional, but ultimately rewarding challenge. I would like to take the time to describe my own journey and provide some advice for students considering a similar career path.
I graduated from the undergraduate Immunology specialist program at the University of Toronto and pursued a Master’s degree in the Department of Immunology from 2009 to 2011. My goal, from the very beginning, was to learn as much as I could about research while working on my application to medical school. As with everything else, it was important to have a plan and choosing the right supervisor was one of the most important steps.
I had worked with Dr. Alberto Martin a year and a half before starting my Master’s degree and thus, I had a significant head start. I knew how the lab functioned and had begun to master the relevant research techniques. This experience helped me fulfill my Master’s requirements in under two years. I was also very clear about my intentions to pursue medicine and Dr. Martin was supportive of this goal, as were the other members of the lab.
I pursued my studies as an undergraduate and graduate student in the Department of Immunology because I like research. However, I wanted to combine critical thinking and research with patient care as I find doctor-patient interactions to be emotionally rewarding. Medical school could fulfill my goals, as well as allow flexibility. I have seen doctors who divide their time successfully between clinical duties, research, and teaching, while also having a family. Moreover, medical school provided a clear path. With every block completed, you are one step closer to working in the field of your choosing. In the end, I decided to do a Master’s and a medical degree because I knew that this choice would provide greater job opportunities and more breadth of knowledge.
Many people wonder whether future salary was a temptation to pursue medicine. For some, it may be a deciding factor but it didn’t influence my decision. If salary is your main motivation, I am not sure you can survive four draining years of self-sacrifice. Remember that medical students spend many years in training, and get paid minimum wage for the hours of work they put in during residency and fellowships, and the pressure of student loans only continues to compound.
Knowing what I wanted in my future career, I applied to medical school. To have a strong application, you need to be involved in extracurricular activities. The type of activity is not particularly important. I have interviewed many applicants in medical school and what the admission committee looks for is passion and commitment in your activities and work. Also, the field of medicine is very challenging so you need to show that you can lead a balanced life as a doctor and take care of yourself before you take care of others. Medical schools look for applicants with good time-management skills. You have to have energy, a positive attitude in life, and take initiative. On my application, I mentioned that I was a leader for the Canadian Association for Girls in Science, teaching assistant of an undergraduate immunology course, project leader for organizing donations to an orphanage, and volunteer at SickKids, the Immunology Graduate Students Association, and others.
Moreover, know your weaknesses and figure out how to improve them for your application. For example, I am not as good of a writer as I want to be, so I received help from a close friend of mine with medical school essays. I also sought out help from my lab mates as well as from the writing center at the University of Toronto to boost my application.
In my opinion, it is also very important to have a close friend to share the experience. Together it is easier to gather information for the application process, prepare for interviews, and research potential schools. The application process is difficult and you will save yourself a lot of stress if you have someone to share in the process and normalize your feelings.
After being accepted to medical school, I faced new challenges in the transition. The greatest difficulty was finding the resources to pay for a very expensive education. From my experience, banks will only give loans to people who already have the money. After a few loan rejections, we were finally approved, and along with OSAP, and family contributions, my husband and I made it work.
The move to Cleveland has also been a stressful step. My husband and I had created a good life in Toronto with a good balance and now we had to adjust to a long distance relationship. Also, we’ve had to cut down on spending to save for medical school and the expensive licensing exams.
Research is detail-oriented. Going from a background in basic research to medical school material, one can lose sight of the big picture and this proved to be a hindrance sometimes. In order to learn efficiently in the limited hours of one day, it is important to step back and know when details are needed and when you should aim to understand just the main concepts. There is a lot to learn and you cannot treat each topic as your thesis research.
Looking back on the experience, I would try to get into a Canadian medical school. The financial burden would have been much lighter. That being said, I really like the program at my school and I think it is a great fit for the way I study. In the first two years, we had a maximum of 4 hours of class per day divided into 2 hours of teaching time and 2 hours of group discussion. A lot of the studying of important concepts came from the 5-6 hours of independent study and research we did the night before. Secondly, if I could, I would take a break to recharge between my graduate and medical studies. I handed in my revised thesis on July 4 and started medical school on July 7.
Overall, both research and medicine are very rewarding and emotionally fulfilling paths, and whatever you chose, you will have the opportunity to make a difference. I have interconnected both fields and have provided some feedback through this article, which I hope will help you if you consider the same path. Many moments in my life have tested my limits. However, I have accepted them because they have shaped the person I am today. However hard something may seem, just be persistent and you will get to where you see yourself!